How do you leave behind the only life you’ve ever known?” wrote Maria Sharapova in a poignant essay announcing her retirement on VanityFair.com and Vogue.com . “How do you walk away from the courts you’ve trained on since you were a little girl, the game that you love — one which brought you untold tears and unspeakable joys — a sport where you found a family, along with fans who rallied behind you for more than 28 years?”
Sharapova will dearly miss the sport she loves, and tennis will miss this transcendent champion who combined celebrity and brand with major titles, more effectively than any woman before.
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Born in remote Siberia, Sharapova was discovered at age six by all-time great Martina Navratilova at a Moscow tennis clinic. Navratilova told Maria’s parents that her manifest talent could best develop where hers did nearly 30 years earlier: in America, the proverbial “land of opportunity.”
Sharapova’s tennis odyssey started a year later when her father, Yuri, with just $700 in his pocket, took his ambitious daughter to the tennis hotbed of south Florida. Neither spoke English, but both believed hard work would pay off. Twenty-five years later, the statuesque blonde achieved more success, fame, and fortune than she could have imagined when she arrived in America. Here’s what I’ll remember most about Maria Sharapova.
Chasing her dream was tough from the start. Sharapova was bullied at Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy, which Andre Agassi once described as having a “Lord of the Flies” environment. Her mother, Yelena, couldn’t join Maria and Yuri for two years due to visa problems. But the young Sharapova persevered through adversity as she would throughout her roller coaster career.
“I was very lonely. Also missed my mom a lot,” she recalled. “To be able to see me, my father always had to work hard so he could get back home early before I fell asleep. I always received insults and more [harsh] treatment than others, though I did it to pursue all my dreams with enthusiasm. Because of that, I learned how to take care of myself. I also never thought about quitting because I knew what I wanted.”
It would take unrelenting pain from injuries and a series of bad losses that plunged her ranking to an abysmal No. 373 this February to force her to finally quit. “I look at photos of myself and of the motion where I’m just about to hit the ball, and I’m in the air or just as I’m making contact, and I can’t even look at it because it makes me cringe,” Sharapova told The New York Times . “I have so much pain.”
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Despite the pain, Sharapova would gain five Grand Slam titles and five more major finals, plus a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics. The resilient Russian also reached a career-high No. 1 in August 2005, earned a top-five year-end ranking nine times, and won the WTA Finals among her 36 titles.
During the 2004 Wimbledon, 17-year-old Maria took her English, Maths and Sociology exams, but in the dramatic final, she passed her toughest test. She shocked two-time and defending champion Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 to become the first Russian to win Wimbledon and its second-youngest champion (after 16-year-old Martina Hingis) in the Open Era.
The slender Sharapova, seeded 13th, displayed the poise of a veteran as she fearlessly outhit the muscular, heavily favoured Williams in one of this century’s biggest upsets. “Nerves of steel or the innocence of youth” was how Boris Becker, himself a 17-year-old prodigy when he won the 1985 Wimbledon, explained Sharapova’s tour de force.
A star was born that historic day on Centre Court. Navratilova called it, “the best thing that could have happened” to women’s tennis.
Not a natural athlete by her own admission, Sharapova left no stone unturned to improve her speed, agility, strength, flexibility and stamina. Yutaka Nakamura, her personal strength and conditioning coach from 2011-18, described her as the epitome of “perfectionism and precision. She’s a true professional. She’s all business on the court.”
Off the court, the elegant Sharapova turned into a sweaty gym rat. “To prepare for every two-hour practice, we started with a warm-up, stretching and pre-hab, which is injury prevention,” Nakamura told me. “After her surgeries, Maria had to spend an extra hour doing injury prevention on top of strength and conditioning and practice. We did mobility exercises and dynamic stretching and running and specific exercises for her shoulders. After practice and lunch, Maria did another 60- to 90-minute session of fitness work.”
Sharapova’s commitment to training never wavered. “Maria never got discouraged,” said Nakamura. “When you see her on TV, she never shows any weakness. And behind the scenes with us, she always followed our guidance. She was always very driven.”
On Sharapova’s retirement, Nakamura said, “She gave everything she had. She had no regrets. She wanted to say goodbye on her terms.”
From 2005 to 2012, Forbes magazine ranked Sharapova in its Celebrity 100, a list of the most popular and influential figures in entertainment and sports. Despite downplaying her beauty, she was a glamour girl in the mould of Anna Kournikova, another shapely, blonde Russian. Sharapova appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and was named the most-searched for athlete by Yahoo in 2005 and 2008.
Discussing the tailored jacket she wore on court during a 2012 French Open victory, Sharapova confided, “Glamour and diva. Hmm. Yeah, that’s me.”
In the rare times she courted controversy, those headlines only made her more popular worldwide — except her 2016 admission of using a banned drug. Sharapova boasted a strong, loyal following on social media, and in 2014, she became the first tennis player to pass 15 million fans on Facebook.
Although Sharapova seldom mingled with fellow players, she hobnobbed with the rich and famous, attending designer Vera Wang’s show at the New York Fashion Week a few days before her retirement announcement and soon after that, the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party with boyfriend-businessman Alexander Gilkes.
“There are a couple of sides of me,” she told The Associated Press before the 2006 US Open, which she won. “There’s the Maria that’s a tennis player. There’s the Maria that is a normal girl. And there’s the Maria who’s a businesswoman. And that’s where the ‘Maria Sharapova brand’ comes into play.”
Serena Williams, her bete noire on the court — winning their last 18 matches! — didn’t compare to Sharapova in the competition for endorsements for most of their careers. The gorgeous Russian ranked as the world’s highest-earning female athlete for 11 consecutive years, according to Forbes magazine. Besides signing lucrative sponsorship deals with Nike, Tag Heuer, Canon, Motorola, Land Rover, PepsiCo, Sony, Porsche, and Evian, Sharapova has investments in the UFC and skincare label Supergoop! and owns her own candy brand called Sugarpova.
When critics noted the potential harmful effects of high sugar levels in Sugarpova products, the entrepreneur recently told CNBC , “I understand the criticism of my product. However, I am an athlete who knows what is healthy and what is not healthy for my body. Health is one of my biggest priorities as a professional athlete. On the other hand, everyone likes sweets, including me.”
Sharapova’s $315 million career income from endorsements far exceeded her $38.7 million career prize money.
“It was always great battles when we played together,” two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova said after learning of Sharapova’s retirement. “I do always have respect for her. She’s been an amazing competitor, she never gives up.”
Kvitova echoed the sentiments of Tour players and fans around the world. No matter the score or how well or poorly she played or how much she suffered from injuries, she battled relentlessly. Her mannerisms revealed her intensity. She clenched her fist as she waited to return serve and she pumped her fist after she won a big point. To keep her focus between points, she walked away from the baseline with her back to the net, a slowdown ritual that irritated some opponents.
I most remember a ferociously determined Sharapova sprinting faster than ever to out-hit and outlast the superbly fit, speedy Simona Halep 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 in the terrific 2014 French Open final. The champion called it “the toughest Grand Slam final I’ve ever played.”
Former two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin called Sharapova “one of the greatest competitors in the history of tennis.” All-time great Chris Evert said, “What I admire about Maria Sharapova is that she plays every point like it’s match point and every tournament like it’s Wimbledon.”
In my book, Sharapova ranks with Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and Maureen Connolly as the greatest female competitors.
When Sharapova whacked the ball, she emitted screams, squeals and shrieks. A mischievous London tabloid once recorded her screams at an ear-bashing 100 decibels on its infamous grunt-o-meter — far louder than Serena Williams’ second-place primal yells of 88.
“I’ve been doing it since I was four and it’s automatic,” insisted Sharapova then. “I can’t help it and I can’t stop doing it.”
She never stopped screaming, despite complaints from opponents and fans, some of whom turned off the TV audio during her matches.
A fashionista second to none, Sharapova displayed a dazzling array of costumes. My favourite was the eye-catching, black Nike dress she wore at the 2006 US Open. If you look great, you feel great, and you often play great, so perhaps it was no surprise that Maria won the title, defeating superstar Justine Henin in the final.
Another head-turner was the “atomic red” dress adorned with Swarovski crystals she donned at the 2007 US Open. Sharapova’s most creative outfit was the white tuxedo-and-shorts combo that stole the show at the 2008 Wimbledon.
“I have six pinnacle outfits a year, with four of them showcased at the Grand Slams,” Sharapova told The Times (UK). “Under the floodlights, the Centre Court becomes my own catwalk.”
Like Venus Williams, she created her own fashion line. No wonder Sharapova called herself “Baby Fashionista.”
Much like Roger Federer, Jimmy Connors, Pancho Gonzalez, King, Navratilova and other champions who competed on the pro tour into their 30s, Sharapova loved the game with the same unadulterated passion she had as a four-year-old child in Russia. Despite chronic right shoulder problems that required multiple surgeries and recurring left forearm tendon pain, she soldiered on, mounting a determined comeback after each setback.
In 2015, Sharapova explained why she never lost her passion for tennis. “Selfishly, it’s just a really powerful feeling as a woman to feel that you’re good and you can be better at what you do,” she said. “I wake up in the morning and although I have many other passions and interests, and you’re like ‘Do I really have to wake up for this?’ when the alarm goes, when I’m out there, hitting the tennis ball has always been a motivation. No matter how good or bad things go on around me in my life, I love that feeling of getting better.”
Sharapova’s passion for improving was matched by her passion for competition. In her first interview after retiring, she revealed what she’d miss most. “Competing — there’s nothing like it,” Sharapova told former pro Daniela Hantuchova at World Team Tennis’ Celebrity All-Star Weekend. “No matter what I’ll choose to do in my future, that moment of victory and match points and losing and then having to figure it out for the next match is one of the best parts of this game.”
No one could have predicted the hard-hitting, but defensively challenged Sharapova would win more Grand Slam titles on clay than any other surface. Certainly not the broad-shouldered, 6’2” Russian. On playing on clay, “I feel like a cow on ice,” she famously quipped in 2007.
Yet five years later, Sharapova overwhelmed Sara Errani in the French Open final to complete a rare career Grand Slam. The triumph also made her the only woman to win a Grand Slam singles title after undergoing surgery to her serving shoulder.
“I always believed I could be a better player, whether it was on clay, whether it was on grass, whether it was on cement, anything,” Sharapova said afterwards. “This is what I’ve always wanted to achieve. No matter how tough it was, no matter how many people didn’t believe in me, didn’t think that I could get to this point, I didn’t care and I didn’t listen. I always listened to my own voice, and it always told me that for some reason I’m meant to be better. I’m meant to succeed again.”
Proving it was no fluke, Sharapova won a second Roland Garros for her fifth major title in 2014, edging clay-court standout Simona Halep. That superb performance ranks with her 2004 Wimbledon triumph over Serena as her two most memorable matches.
Known for her keen intelligence and direct replies, Sharapova has delivered verbal volleys as devastating as her match play.
On being branded the new Anna Kournikova, after the sexy Russian blonde who never won a singles title, the 16-year-old Sharapova fired back, “I’m not the next Kournikova — I want to win matches!”
At the 2012 Australian Open, eventual finalist Sharapova was informed by the media that Agnieszka Radwanska, who had lost in the quarterfinals, criticised her for the shrieks Radwanska described as “annoying” and “just too loud.” Not amused, Sharapova countered, “Isn’t she back in Poland already?”
At the 2013 ESPY Awards, she skewered model Marissa Miller’s virtually see-through frock: That’s interesting... I would maybe...cover some parts of it?”
When Caroline Wozniacki criticised the 2017 US Open decision to schedule all of Sharapova’s matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium in her first Grand Slam appearance after serving a 15-month drug ban, Sharapova responded, “I’m a pretty big competitor. If you put me out in the parking lot of Queens in New York City, I’m happy to play there. That’s not what matters to me. All that matters to me is I’m in the fourth round. I’m not sure where she is.” (Wozniacki had lost in the second round.)
After Gilles Simon suggested at the 2012 Wimbledon that women did not deserve equal pay at Grand Slams events, Sharapova retorted, “I’m sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his.”
Just as she was a lone wolf at Bollettieri’s tennis academy — “Maria never practised with her fellow students — never!” Nick wrote in his autobiography — she had very few friends on the pro tour. Sharapova once described the locker room as “my least favourite place.” In her memoir, Unstoppable: My Life So Far , Sharapova wrote: “The record book? Posterity? F.... that. Did you hear what that girl said about me at the press conference? That’s what gets me going. Make them eat their words.” The feeling was mutual. When Halep was asked if she had talked to Sharapova after the Russian revealed her positive drug test, the Romanian replied, “Why would I talk to Maria now? I never talked to her before.” Dominika Cibulkova once said of Sharapova. “She’s a totally unlikable person — arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won’t even say hello.” So it wasn’t surprising that very few of her fellow pros, aside from Petra Kvitova, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and former boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov, paid tribute to her after she announced her retirement. There would be no farewell tour for the aloof champion.
Sharapova was respected by all, but loved by few.